4 Common giving mistakes I’ve made

4 Common giving mistakes I’ve made

As Warm Up Winter kicks off, Common Good Executive Director, Sarah Binos, shares some of her personal discoveries about giving in ways that won’t erode dignity. 

Something a Common Grounder shared with me over a Sunday lunch has been ringing in my head for the last few weeks.

The thought was this: “We are all equal in Christ, but given our recent history, white people will struggle with the temptation to feel superior to other races, and blacks will feel tempted to feel inferior to whites, eroding our dignity and causing our unity to crumble.”

This statement put me in a state of deep reflection about how we give. Yes – I always give good quality items that reinforce that all people have worth, but in the process of giving there are many other ways we can harm.

Instead of giving you a blueprint for giving – because there isn’t one! – here are some of the mistakes I’ve made in the area of giving. Hopefully this will equip others not to do the same!

Mistake #1

I haven’t prioritised building relationships enough as I try to live out Christ’s call to do justice

There – I said it. Painful but true. While I’ve built friendships that cross the divides in our city, I haven’t taken enough time to truly understand my neighbours.

To truly understand someone you need a level of honesty and trust to share deeply. In the context of friendship, we listen to each other’s stories – stories that reveal past hurts, current needs, future hopes and aspirations. As we do life together we give to each other.

Giving is safe when it’s a two-way affair. Giving is safe when a friend can tell you that your oversized jeans just don’t fit. When we are not in relationship with the people we are giving to they become our charity cases – which often results in the inferiority/superiority carrot being dangled.

A friend of mine is the daughter of a domestic worker whose employer paid for her schooling. As a result, she was afforded an opportunity she would never have had access to. However, the employer never connected with my friend. As a result, my friend grew up feeling inferior, and whilst she was grateful for the opportunities afforded to her, she felt like the charity case of a rich, successful donor.

She accepted the gift, but deeply resents the way it made her feel. “Ungrateful”, you may be thinking. I think “grateful, but hurt” would be a better way of describing her response. My friend explained how much it would have meant if her donor had been more like a distant aunt – who checked in with her occasionally and saw her as a person with hopes and dreams as opposed to a project.

Mistake #2

In my attempt to “fix things”, I’ve communicated that “I am the adult and you are the child”

I think quickly. I speak quickly. When I give, I have at times attached a whole lot of unsolicited advice to my giving – without it having been requested. I hate it when people give me advice that I haven’t asked for!

Instead of engaging, asking insightful questions and giving the person I hope to bless the space to process and think through a way forward, I present a quick solution with a whole lot of uninvited advice. This can communicate the idea that I’m wiser, and that I know how to solve your problem better than you do.

Mistake #3

I have not listened and empathised enough

Sometimes we see the broken things of this world, and then quickly think of ways to fix the brokenness. In our haste, we bypass the process of listening, understanding, and identifying with those in need, and instead jump straight to giving something that will hopefully fix the problem.

A friend of mine replaced his domestic worker’s roof on her tin shack. The domestic worker asked my friend to use local members of the community to assist with the labour. However, my friend decided to cut costs and do it himself. Local community members retaliated by setting the shack on fire.

In not listening attentively, I too have assumed to know people’s needs. Have you ever been given something you just really don’t need, but the person giving it to you thinks it’s just what you need? It sucks. Because it communicates that they don’t know you very well.

Mistake #4

At times I have perpetuated cycles of dependency and bad habits

Sometimes, the most loving thing we can do is to NOT give. I have given to street children where my giving perpetuates cycles of addiction and acts as a means for them to stay on the street.

Bob Lupton, author of “Toxic Charity”, says that “giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people.”

Giving something material is often the easy way to help. Giving in a way that will move people from relief to development is much harder and more sacrificial.

When I come across people in need who I don’t know, I try to limit one way giving to instances where immediate relief is needed, for example food or blankets. When I feel burdened by an issue, I give to organisations who have a track record of success in dealing with the issue.

I’m still learning and will continue to do so as I better know and follow Christ. Some of these mistakes have been easy to rectify, but others are harder and require more thought and discussion.

Connecting and building relationships with people across all divides (race, class, culture) in Cape Town is perhaps the biggest challenge we face in this city. Thankfully we have Christ to lead and empower us – this has been my greatest lesson!  Listen to the whispers of the Holy Spirit.

Note from the Editor: This article was originally posted on 27 May 2013, but we thought we could do with a reminder of how to give in ways that restore dignity as we start this year’s Warm Up Winter.

[This blog post is part of our Warm Up Winter series. We’ll be posting reflections, ideas and feedback over the next few weeks. If you have thoughts you’d like to share on our blog, email Sam.]FB_profile pic


This post was written by

2 Comments on "4 Common giving mistakes I’ve made"

  • Marcienne says

    Sarah, what a great blog post! Thanks so much for sharing these learnings. I am also realising more how the context in which we live or rather do life (Cape Town, South Africa 2013) impacts our across-the-city relationships more than we first may realise. It’s so important to be conscious of thinking patterns and feelings (of ours and of others) which we don’t usually consider, when we think about responding to poverty and injustice – and giving during Winter, in this instance. Thanks so much for sharing, and for bringing the learning that God does in our hearts (and can often be difficult) to the fore!

  • Roger Wood says

    Thanks for these thoughts Sarah. You raise some important points and we’ve all made the same mistakes. The danger is when people fail to learn from mistakes. They either go on doing the same thing or give up giving altogether because they feel hurt when they find that the sandwich or piece of clothing given to the person at the gate has just been dumped in the nearest waste bin.

    I’m beginning to realise that the key to giving is in relationship and the trouble with that is that it takes time. It takes time just to build a relationship with one’s own domestic worker or gardener. How many of us really know where they live or what their real needs are? We assume that because they have a job they have everything that they need. Just two months ago I discovered that the lady who works for us is fighting a legal battle. Her need is not more clothes or extra food but legal advice.

    Perhaps one of the dangers of a campaign like Warm up Winter is that out of our plenty, we sort out clothes to give to those we perceive to be in need. In doing so we often give inappropriate clothes. For example we give the dress that we wore to the cocktail evening some years ago or the Billabong surfing shorts we no longer need. In doing so we feel satisfied because we have helped someone else. We then sit back and wait for the next year before doing anything more.

    My plea to small groups that don’t already have relationships with individuals, is that should rather identify organisations that can either distribute the items for them or sell them through their charity stores in order to provide much needed funds to run programmes which meet the needs of the individual. Take the opportunity to see what those organisations are doing and how your group can build a long term relationship with them.

    I’d love to hear more from others as to how we can learn to build those relationships so thank you for opening and sharing how you are learning through experiences.


Leave Your Comment